Luke Hickey: Good evening everyone. A very warm welcome on a very cold night, to the National Library of Australia, and to this very special event: Willowman by Inga Simpson, in conversation with Holly Ferling. I’m Luke Hickey, I’m the Assistant Director-General of the Engagement Branch here at the National Library of Australia. And as we begin I’d like to acknowledge Australians – our First Nations peoples, the first Australians, as the traditional custodians of the land. I give my respects to their Elders past and present, and through them to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Australia. Particularly acknowledging that we hold many of their objects here in our collection.
Thank you for attending this event either online or in-person, and we’re coming to you here from the National Library on beautiful Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. Tonight we discuss Inga Simpson’s best-selling and critically acclaimed fifth novel Willowman; a story about the craft and culture of cricket, and set as a new form of the short game develops and women’s cricket continues its meteoric rise. Willowman is a magical reflection on the artistry, classical music and relationships, and so much more. As a cricket tragic myself, I cannot wait to hear Holly and Inga talk in detail about the inspiration for this novel. It is also fitting that this event comes between the opening games of the Men’s and Women’s Ashes series, and also as part of our program here at the National Library to support our new exhibition, “Grit and Gold, Tales from a Sporting Nation.”
This exhibition uses a rich collection of books, magazines, paintings, drawings, photographs and memorabilia to celebrate Australia’s sporting heritage and its effect on our culture over the years. Cricket, and one very special cricket bat, are featured prominently throughout the show. And Grit and Gold is on at the National Library here until the 5th of November. So we hope you’ll take the time, after this event, to pop upstairs and have a look through the exhibition. To our stars of the show tonight. Inga Simpson is an Australian novelist and nature writer. She has PhDs in Creative Writing and English Literature, with her most recent thesis exploring the history of Australian nature writing. Inga was also the winner of the final Eric Rolls Nature Writing Prize for her essay Triangulation.
And her novels have attracted nominations for the Miles Franklin Award and the Stella Prize. Willowman was also long-listed for the 2023 Indie Book Awards. Inga is joined in conversation tonight by Holly Ferling. Holly debuted for the Australian women’s cricket team at a ridiculously young age of 17. In all three formats; one-day internationals, T20 and test cricket. All while completing schooling in Kingaroy in country Queensland. A devastating right arm fast bowler, Holly has also been a fantastic addition to our local cricket scene here, both as a role model for young players, but also as a key member of the ACT Meteors in the WNCL, and most recently the Perth Scorchers in the WBBL.
She’s had success on the biggest stage and the biggest matches at all levels of competition. In addition to that, Holly’s also worked as a journalist for three years, in a commercial radio newsroom for Macquarie Media, as well as reporting and commentating for Channel 7, Fox Sports and ABC Grandstand, which makes her an ideal host for tonight. Please join me in welcoming Inga Simpson and Holly Ferling to discuss Willowman.
Holly Ferling: Thank you everyone, and thank you for coming and braving the weather that is today. I tell you what, I do feel right at home here because while my job away from playing is to talk about cricket, we’re continuing this conversation here. Inga, congratulations on such a wonderful novel. I do want to know before we get into this, did you stay up to watch our Aussie boys get over the line the other night?
Inga Simpson: I did not. There was a rain delay to start.
Holly Ferling: Yes, that’s it.
Inga Simpson: So I was going to watch the first hour just to get a sense of how it might go. My partner had to get up at 5 o’clock the next morning, so I did not. And I’ve been listening to a lot of people’s stories about the game – like viewers’ stories about the game, and that they woke up at 3 in the morning and just had a feeling and turned it on. Now I had that feeling at 4 a.m. but I thought, “I can’t wake my partner up. Like this hour of sleep is the difference between getting through the day and not.” So I just lay there thinking, “It’s happening. Something’s happening.” And it was.
Holly Ferling: Absolutely. And I think this is just one of those wonderful things – and I think you’ve encaptured it beautifully in Willowman – but this whole thing of momentum swings. We didn’t know, going into the last day, where the game was going to go, and how it was going to be placed, how the weather was going to affect it as well. One of the things that I love the most that you’ve done is – there are so many Australian cricket autobiographies. And if you go up to Grit and Gold, there’s actually a section where there’s autobiographies by our Australian sportspeople. And I feel like cricketers seem to dominate. They seem to have a story to tell. And I feel like these stories tend to get taller the amount of years, I guess, from those periods of happening.
But there is not many novels about Australian cricket – fictional novels – for our Australian fans to really sink their teeth in. And I feel like, just like Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon and the Aussie team did the other night, you’ve changed the game in this book as well. How did you come through, I guess, cricket? What was some of you early experiences with cricket?
Inga Simpson: I first watched cricket with my paternal grandfather. And I think initially it was probably just an excuse to sit in the one air-conditioned of my grandparents’ house, and be treated with cold watermelon, ginger beer – which was alcoholic actually, which probably helped. But, yes, he explained a few things about the game, and it was a way of relating to him. And then as I got a bit older and watched it in the school holidays over summer, it was the height of the West Indies kind of powers in the men’s game; really dominating the men’s game. And they were just so beautiful to watch, so athletic, and exciting, and had strong personalities. We had Marsh and Lillee and Pascoe and – yes, there were tantrums on the field, and gold chains flashing. I don’t know, it was – it seemed like an exciting game then. And maybe initially I watched the one-day game, but I became more engrossed in the tests. And actually trying to keep score in a proper scorebook – you know, all through the test –
Holly Ferling: Do you actually have one of them that you were –
Inga Simpson: Yes, I went and bought one. It didn’t last long. Probably filled in about a quarter of it. But it was – it gave me attention to the game; how much is involved just in scoring it properly.
Holly Ferling: I feel like there’d be a few club teams around here that might be ready to sign you up as another scorer. You spoke about there just about the, I guess, some of the personalities and stuff like that, that came through cricket. What part was the beauty that you encaptured here, but what really caught your attention in the beauty of the game – through those times of scoring and spending time with your grandfather, what was it that really captured your attention?
Inga Simpson: I guess part of it is the personalities, isn’t it. I mean the stories behind all the players, and then what it means when they get that hundred and they’re emotional for the first time, and they’re live on television throwing bats or whatever. And the narrative of the team, how they’ve been doing. I mean I started watching at a time when Australia was pretty dominant. But, yes, in a test match – yes, if you walk out to get a drink you miss – you could miss the most amazing moment and you never feel the same if you just see it on replay. Do you know what I mean? So it really taught me – you know, I write novels. I think novels are a lot like a test match; you really have to kind of earn it.
And you start out not knowing much about the characters or what’s going to happen, and you follow it, and it takes twists and turns, and something surprises you maybe, but it takes you on this journey. And I feel like every test match – every game, really – I mean even a T20 game, it’s just got a narrative and it – they chop and change more quickly. But in test cricket, yes, that build to a moment that changes the game. And you feel it – if you’re in the ground or if you’re watching on TV – the goose bump moment when someone just gets a freaky catch and you think, “Oh,” and it changes the mood, the momentum, the whole thing. There’s something kind of magical about that.
Holly Ferling: Absolutely. Well then a change of pace for you going from all your nature novels and everything, although I feel like you’ve found ways to weave that into this book.
Inga Simpson: Yes.
Holly Ferling: And what was the inspiration behind this one?
Inga Simpson: Well it was wood. It was trees and timber. It was reading about the magical qualities of light willow, which is really a subspecies of – sub-subspecies of willow. And I just read that all elite bats are made from this one species of tree. Which, for a start, is kind of astounding. But, yes, it starts out as a softwood, very moist. But once you dry it out and press it, it becomes a hardwood, hard enough to hit a cricket bat. There’s kind of a magic in that. So it was reading about that, the work that a traditional bat maker does that made me think, “Yes, one day I want to write about that.” And a bloke called Simon Castles wrote this article asking, “Where are all the great Australian cricket novels?” And I naïvely thought, “Well, yes I can do that.”
Because there are a whole lot of American baseball novels that they’re about baseball but they’re about much more than baseball; The Natural, The Art of Fielding. Some of them have been made into pretty good movies. But they’re also about the American dream, and how that’s tied to sport. So I started thinking, “Well, what is the Australian dream actually? And what do our cricket teams” – particularly the men’s cricket team, which was still dominant when I was thinking about this – “what does it say about Australia life and what our dream is? That’s actually interesting to think about.” And then – I still hadn’t written anything, I was still talking about it.
And then Phillip Hughes was killed on the field playing a game. And that really impacted on me. And I’m still flat to get through talking about it without feeling emotional, which is – you know, I never met him, but he was my favourite player at the time. And I think everyone was waiting for him – who followed the game, was waiting for him to get back into the Australian team and play those hundred test matches for Australia, to kind of fulfil his promise, if you like. Why do we want that so much? Why do we live our lives through sportspeople? And he was trying really hard to get back in the Australian team. I mean I was following the game in which he was killed, because I wanted him back on the team. I thought, “If he just gets 50, he’ll be right. A hundred would be good.”
So I’m refresh, refresh, refresh, he’s stuck on 63. What’s going on? So I’ll never forget that moment and where I was sitting. I was meant to be writing another book. Yes, those three things together. I initially thought I might write the book about the career that Phillip Hughes could have had, should have had. But, yes, it ended up a different story I think.
Holly Ferling: I feel like sport just galvanises Australians. There’s something about it that, regardless of whether it’s triumphs or tragedies, it’s the one thing that unites us all. We all kind of go back to grassroots sport. And I feel like that’s the one connection that we all have to our own communities. And I think everyone grew up wanting to be an Olympian, or they wanted to have the baggy green – or whatever it is – I think everyone has that dream at some point. You spoke about the bats just before, and you really spoke about the craft. And I think whenever anyone talks about the craft of cricket, people automatically think about athletes, they think about the spinners and what it takes to twirl over, to work through a batter, and the variations that you’ve got to have.
A batter spending days and days and days at the crease, and hours trying to work out how to actually go about scoring that elusive hundred. But quite often the unsung heroes are our bat makers. How did you go immersing yourself into that world?
Inga Simpson: Yes, well I’d read this article and it turns out that guy, Lachlan Fisher, I ended up – I just contacted him and asked – he was running these workshops – a week-long workshop – and I thought, “Cool, I can do a bat making workshop.” But, yes, he’d stopped running them, and he’d moved out of Melbourne, and was a bit reluctant. But I convinced him that I was serious, and sent him some of my work, explained what I wanted to do. And so I drove down to regional Victoria and just really spent a whole day with him. Turned up at his workshop. Saw him make a bat from start to finish. And took pictures, and videoed it, and talked to him. He took me for a drive out to – he had a willow grove – still does – where he grows willow trees. And talked through what it’s like to cut one down.
And, yes, I just asked questions, took pictures. And trees I could talk about. In the workshop I was pretty quiet. Yes, and he told me this great thing early on that when you cut down a willow tree and when the bark sort of comes away from the trunk, there’s a moment – if you’re watching – where the – there’s kind of a blue glow, and then it disappears. Like the spirit of the tree or something. He didn’t use those words. But I just thought, “That’s gold. That’s gold.” But there were so many little anecdotes like that just that you could not get from Google or reading something he’d written. It was just spending time with him and seeing where he lives, and seeing where willows grow, and what they look like.
Because they don’t weep, they’re quite a tall, straight tree. They’re manicured when they’re young so that they grow straight and don’t have cross-branches. And all those details. And then – you’ll laugh at this – he – I wanted him to make me a bat, like a really high grade bat out of high grade willow, so that I’d know what it felt like and sounded like. And I knew I’d only ever hit a cricket ball around my lounge room, around my – you know, leaned it on my desk or whatever. But, yes, he’s like, “Play a few shots.” And I was like, “Do I admit that I’ve never played cricket in my life?” So I just tried to slash it a bit like I was Phil Hughes. And he looked amused and I thought, “Yes, he knows.”
But I guess he had my – having seen me, he had my height and, yes, saw the way I threw the bat around. So, yes, he made me a bat for me. It arrived in the post a few weeks later. And kind of a blank – I didn’t do it from scratch, because the handle’s quite hard to set and I didn’t really have the gear for that. So he’d set the handle in, but kind of a blank that I could then have a go at shaping. I got a heap of tools in EBay to make it look a little like mine. But, yes, nowhere near as good. So time immersed in someone else’s life.
Holly Ferling: I feel like it’s something that we’re quite naïve as athletes. We arrive at the game and we just go, we’ve got our kits and everything. But we often don’t get to see some of these nuances that happen right around our sport. What was something in that process of him making your bat that – or making bats in front of you – that really surprised you?
Inga Simpson: Well, the thing that surprised me most, it was how easy he made it look. And then when I tried, I could – and it was a very sharp tool, it’s brand new – I could hardly get it through the timber. And I had this idea of soft – I’d been describing it like balsawood and like butter, and it is so not. I was like, “Grrr.” Yes, I’m not very big, but I’m not a weak – I’m used to being reasonably strong and capable. So that was as shock. Just little things. Well the smell; there was a definite smell of the timber which, I don’t know, often pale timbers don’t have a smell but it really did. How little and messy and crappy his workshop was for the stuff that he produced. And, yes, young – just the little anecdotes.
A young guy walked in and he wanted a bat repaired, and Lachlan could – just took one look at the bat and then gave him batting advice, like because he was smashing the toe of the bat all the time. And so he said, “Look you’re doing blah, blah, blah, blah. I’ll try and fix it but you’ve got to change your game.” And I thought, “Wow, so he really knows the game. Like he knows all aspects of the game. And players don’t know bat making, but he knows batting.”
Holly Ferling: Yes, absolutely. So there’s that craft. But you also found a way to weave in music through this book as well. Talk us through some of the decisions that you made there to do that, and almost the parallels that happen amongst cricket and music.
Inga Simpson: Well I knew I wanted my bat maker to have been something else before. To have been some sort of artist or creative that he didn’t succeed at. Because that played into something I wanted to write about and explore through the book about what is success. And I spent a lot of time in Canberra. I know a lot of athletes. And most of them didn’t get to play for Australia, or they made the squad and then were cut from the final team. And I always thought, “That must be just the pits to train with them and then be on the bench.” So I was interested in that idea. And then maybe what would that mean for the bat maker having never quite made it – fulfilled their dreams.
And then they’re so obsessed – he’s so obsessed with cricket and watching other people fulfil their dreams. I knew that would be fun. Or interesting at least. The real bat maker, Lachlan, had been a visual artist – so a painter – I thought, “Well he can’t be a painter.” And I’ve already written a book about a glassblower and a – like a – yes, not a visual artist. So I kind of went to music because it was next. But then – yes, a friend of mine I was explaining to him about white willow and the process of bat making – what I just said to you guys – and he said, “That sounds a lot like the reeds that I used to make when I played he oboe.” And my first question – well my first statement was, “You played the oboe?” Because you wouldn’t pick it now.
And he said, “Yes, I went to the School of Music, and I did this, and I – but I dropped out.” So here’s another one of those stories, right. But he explained the process of crafting a reed which – and how there’s French cane and German cane, and difference of the French style and the German style. And it was so much like bat making but on a kind of a micro scale; really detailed about how you cut and shape the reed. But I thought, “Well there’s my instrument; oboe it is.” But, yes, I’ve never played a musical instrument. I listen to ABC Classic, and that was about the extent of my music knowledge. So, yes, I had to educate myself about the oboe, and work it in. But, yes, it’s just funny how when you’re writing a book sometimes, if your heart’s really in it, if your head’s in it, things just come that fit, and then the parallels are kind of there to work with already.
Holly Ferling: Absolutely. One of the things that I love most about the book – and, to be honest, it’s one of the reasons why I changed careers – I was going to be a teacher. Went to uni and I just found myself fascinated by sport and media and particularly the stories behind people; how – and it’s the same thing that I take when I go into commentating now. I could not care about stats. Stats can paint a picture and I can use stats to show something that I need it to. But the thing that I’m most fascinated about are the people. Like how have they got here? “What did you do that day to be able to perform the way that you did? What’s been the lead-up? How’s the group feeling?” You’ve really honed in on some of those really personal, human sides of the stories.
And particularly someone caught between two worlds and two identities. One being a professional cricketer, which cricket is – for all of us here that are cricket fans – cricket is all-encompassing. Like there is – and you – as a cricketer, you have more awful days than good days. Like the stats are not in your favour. You just – it’s similar to golf. You’ve got that one good shot that you just keep coming back to. You’re like, “Yes, it will come. It will come.” But so you’ve got that side of things where it’s all-encompassing. But then also a character that’s also trying to still be human, still have relationships and still have family and everything around them. How did you – I take it that, from hearing you speak tonight, that those stories are what interests you as well. How did you go about navigating that and bringing forward that human side to sportspeople?
Inga Simpson: Yes, I mean a novel has to be character-driven. So I was conscious of that, that I could have happily written a book three times that length with just covering cricket matches that I made up in my head. But, yes, the characters are what drives the reader’s interest; as they do mine. Thinking about Phillip Hughes, why did he seem such a likeable guy? Why did everyone want him to succeed and other players we don’t want to so much; we kind of want them to fail. Very interesting. Yes, I mean, to be honest, writing Harrow was quite – I found him quite hard to write. And, yes, a young male cricketer. And you know, that’s outside my experience. And you’d think I’ve watched enough of them over decades and decades to get it.
It was really his sister, Liv, that brought him to life for me. So when he was playing I was fine, but home and a house, what do I do with him? So he’s – yes, in relationship with someone else. So he has a younger sister who’s equally talented – I don’t have siblings either – but when they were together, yes, the scenes were really easy to write. And again, he has a romantic relationship, how do you balance – yes, I don’t know how there’s time for it. I don’t know how players make their relationships work, particularly not – like unless their partner is just there to kind of support their career. I guess that model’s changing a little bit; partners having their own lives and their own careers.
But I was interested in that; how would you make it work? And writing’s very different from sport, but there are some similarities. Like it is kind of – well, there are more crap days than there are good days. It’s just a slog to sit down, make yourself sit down at the desk and – you know, like going to training when you don’t feel great, or turning up to a game you know you’re not in the best form; lots of days like that. And it is pretty consuming, between the writing of it – living in this fantasy world whilst crossing paths with other people in your house. So there was a lot I could identify with actually. And just wondering, I guess. We don’t actually see much – I think the press does a pretty good job of not revealing what goes on behind closed doors with players. I mean it’s not often we – that is revealed to the public. There’s a nice code there, I think, for protecting the players. Until something hits the fan, and then we see it or some people –
Holly Ferling: Media loves it.
Inga Simpson: Yes. So I guess that’s what I was interested in, and what I thought would be an aspect of the game that maybe people watching – just watching – maybe haven’t thought about. Like, “How does this player go home when they’ve had – at the end of a series when they’re averaging nine? And how do they go home and hug their kids and not just burst into tears when they get off the plane?” Or Sandpapergate – you know, when Australia got – the men’s team got caught cheating in South Africa. That was extraordinary. That happened while I was writing it. I had to put the book down for a few months, (a) I was so upset, and (b) it was just so awful following the press.
So imagine that; turning up to a press conference, like Smith did, at the – just off a long haul flight, and facing the press and burst into tears in front of the world. I mean I feel like – a lot of people who read books don’t like sport actually. Like in my world, in the literary world, “Sport, I can’t believe you’ve written about cricket.” I get this all the time. I wanted people to understand how hard those players work – how hard those players work. What goes on behind the scenes, and the pressures – yes, the men’s team at least are very well paid, and stay in nice hotels, and flown around the world. But, hello, there are still tremendous pressures on them. And they’re very young human beings.
Holly Ferling: Yes, absolutely. And the sacrifices and different elements that, yes, I think you have done really well to articulate throughout the book. Because I feel like with athletes, we have this overarching expectation – I don’t know if it’s just Australian, I think it is, because observing when I went over and played in the Ashes a few years ago, the English media – like England can be going rubbish, and the English media still be pumping up their tyres and everything’s great. We have a batter not go well and all of a sudden we’re asking for their head. Or even in the footy codes, you see a team lose three games on the trot to start the season, they’re already saying coach is done; that’s it. It is so – I guess it’s so challenging sometimes as sportspeople, and also observing in people that are interested in the people behind the athlete, to – we’re just so quick to cut our Australian athletes, aren’t we?
Inga Simpson: Absolutely. And, yes, definitely tried to work that in there. Yes, we’re so – and I think this is across the board in Australia – the arts, the sports – when someone starts out, like a new person, a prodigy, “Oh” – you know, a new opening batter for Australia, “Oh” – we love them, until they have a bad series, and then we just turn on them. Absolutely. And that happened to Phillip Hughes. And then the selectors turn on him too and drop him. It can’t be good for your confidence.
Holly Ferling: No. No, definitely isn’t. You have told me this already when we had a phone call last week, but share with everyone here, how long did this book take for you to write? You already said you had to put it down around Sandpapergate. How long?
Inga Simpson: From the idea – that initial idea I had in 2011, and it came out last year. There you go. So I probably didn’t start writing properly until Phillip Hughes died; maybe a bit after that. And, yes, I really like – moved interstate, that was a break. I was asked to write The Last Woman in the World, which came out before this. But, yes, I had to put this down for a year or two. COVID. Yes, so delays, but really it took me that long to pull a thing that was twice as long and a real mess, to kind of clarify my thoughts about what I wanted to do with it. And there’s so many stories I could have told. Yes, and I’ve said to you too that in the course of writing that, the women’s game has changed completely. And so that’s in there. But by the time I got to the end, I felt like Liv had really stolen the book from me, and maybe I wish I’d written a different story.
Holly Ferling: Because that was – my next question was these last 10 years of Australian cricket, and cricket in general across the globe, it shifted and changed so much.
Inga Simpson: Yes.
Holly Ferling: At one point there they were talking about the death of test cricket. Then they were talking about the death of one-day cricket. T20 has well and truly taken over. And now you’ve got some of these massive Indian teams that are now buying out franchises in other teams. You’ve got international players choosing between playing for their country, and representing and going after the money in these ludicrous – lucrative, sorry – T20 –
Inga Simpson: A bit ludicrous.
Holly Ferling: Yes. Yes, well and truly. You’ve set this in the kind of early 2000s, haven’t you? Were you tempted to see how – were you almost reflecting as you were writing the book, how far the game has come even since then?
Inga Simpson: Yes, definitely. And particularly when I’d put it down and came back to it I’m like, “Oh, yes, this women’s game has really changed. Wow, that happened while I was watching.” The shifts in the men game have been harder to notice, but yes it has been massive. But that turned out to my benefit. I mean I’d put it – set it at that time because there was that question of, “Is test cricket dead? And is traditional bat making dead? You know, we’ll just buy them off – these mass-produced bats blah.” But, yes, there’s always – bespoke always comes back. And the women’s game is part of that too because the mass-produced bats initially, yes, weren’t so great for women, particularly shorter women. So, yes, women had to have a bat made for them, or buy a bat and have it altered is my understanding.
So that played right into my hands and the story’s hands. But, yes, it is a lovely aspect to reflect on, I think, how much has changed. And well Malcolm Knox, the sportswriter, asked me a few weeks ago did I think – you know, because I see that the women’s game is different. It’s nicer to watch. They play in a different spirit. Certainly after Sandpapergate a lot of people pretty disgusted with the men’s team and watch the women’s team knowing that this is not going to happen. Yes, so he asked me, “With the commercialisation of the women’s game, with the professionalisation of the game, more money slowly coming to the game, will that change how women play the sport?” But, yes, I can’t imagine it. What do you think?
Holly Ferling: You’ve turned the tables here. Here we go.
Inga Simpson: Yes, see how I did that.
Holly Ferling: No, I think it’s a really interesting period that we’re in right now. For those in the room who don’t know – so we had a new pay deal come in which is phenomenal. It’s driving our women forward even more. Some of my teammates – ACT teammates – their minimum contracts are $50,000. As an example, my first contract when I was 16 – so that’s 11 year ago – was $900, and I was absolutely cheering because the first thing I had at the top of my list, I’m like, “I can buy a new bat. I can do this.” So it has come such a long way. I don’t think we’ll lose the personalities. I think we have this opportunity to sit and watch the way that the men have done things, and the professionalism and the steps that they’ve taken, and do it better.
We’ve all come – I’ve seen some of my teammates roll in from law firms with cricket spikes in one hand and heels in the other as they come to training. And I’ve really been privileged to see both sides of the amateur where – the amateur level we were at to now semi-professional, pushing professional. And I really hope that we don’t lose the human side of things where we have these other identities away from sport, because sport is just so great. It can also be a really dark place at different points. And that’s where your relationships, your other identities really start to pull you out. And I think that’s possibly what we’re starting to see in this Australian men’s team now is that they’ve got this collective belief.
But I think it’s because they’re stronger as individuals and personalities. And I mean we might argue that they’ve actually taken a leaf out of the Aussie girls’ books as well right through this. Speaking about cricket and where it’s at, and you are an avid test fanatic.
Inga Simpson: Not enough to stay up all night.
Holly Ferling: You had other priorities there.
Inga Simpson: Yes, I did. Balance – balance.
Holly Ferling: Where do you see the game moving forward, or what do you hope to see for the men’s game? We’ll get to the women’s game in a tick. But where do you see everything placed? There’s lots talking about Bazball and everything at the moment.
Inga Simpson: Yes.
Holly Ferling: Where would you like to see it go?
Inga Simpson: I love test cricket now. So, yes, I don’t have the same passion for the one-day game, and T20. Though they play a role. I wonder if in the men’s game if the 50-over game will go. You can sort of see how T20 is not – where that’s only going to be bigger. I hope test cricket doesn’t go. I think, you know, Bazball is interesting if it brings more people to the game. And still ended up a five-day match. So it’s a positive. Yes, I wouldn’t miss the 50-over game. There’s just no room in the schedule. And if you say – if, as you say, like the franchise kind of model comes in, I’m assuming that will be T20 matches all round the world most of the year. So it would be flat to squeeze in test matches. So something has to give. It will be interesting to see what.
I think it would be sad if the sort of ultimate achievement in cricket – men’s or women’s – isn’t to play a test for your country. Yes, it will be a shame if it was to earn more money. If it was only about earning money, I think that would be sad. Yes, and in the women’s game, just more tests. Like give them an opportunity to showcase their skills over a longer period. And at the moment this is to Australia’s advantage, a test match, because we are more experienced, we have a – well, this is my impression that, yes, we have – there’s a lot of depth we could – yes, we have just put up two teams – a depth and experience, and kind of the character of the women’s game in Australia, yes, I think we would do well in test cricket at the moment. And then the other teams will come up to meet us, which is only natural. But, yes, so there’s – they’re almost opposite directions at the moment.
Holly Ferling: Yes, I feel like everyone saw T20 as the vehicle for women’s cricket. Make it short and sharp, get everyone in, watch. And quite often, “Let’s have the women as the curtain-raiser to the men.” All of that kind of stuff. Now we’re starting to see sponsors come on board just for the women. So Commonwealth Bank supports the Australian women’s cricket team, not the Australian men’s team. And we’re starting to see these tournaments take centre stage. Australian women have been at the pinnacle. They are arguably our best cricket team that we have had going right across the decades. And yet the one thing that is held back from state players and our Australian players, is that opportunity to play long format cricket.
It’s called a test for a reason; it’s to test yourself mentally, physically, tactically. And that opportunity’s not given as much. Fittingly though, the Australian women’s team gets to play three tests this summer – or this year. Currently over in England with the Ashes, they get to play one against India in December, and then finally coming back over here to Australia they’ve got South Africa coming and playing a test for the very first time, which is super exciting.
Inga Simpson: Yes, I just think for the real diehard cricket fans, it’s test matches they want to see, and that’s the way to showcase the women’s skills and to be – for want of a better term – taken seriously. Yes, I think it’s probably our best sporting team ever. I remember maybe the first Women’s World Cup, so 50-over game, that I watched and wow, they were just the most amazing team through the whole tournament. But then, yes, I think I still have the picture somewhere. I used to have it up over my desk as like motivation. Just the joy on their faces. And it was front page of the newspaper, I think, the next day. So everyone celebrated it here. I don’t know how many people sat up and watched it. But, yes, they’ve been our most successful team.
Holly Ferling: Is there something in that that you hope that in the next five/10 years looking forward – whether it’s more tests to have that opportunity for more baggy greens and that opportunity to play the ultimate of our sport – but is there anywhere else, even within women’s sport in general, that you’d like to see where cricket sits in that or where women’s sport sits within the Australian landscape?
Inga Simpson: I think we need more women commentators in the commentary box. Not just one token person every now and then. So, yes, I don’t watch – usually watch 7, so I’m not sure of the weighting – yes, the makeup of those teams that you work within. I have Fox – only to watch cricket – you know, Isa Guha has changed commentary –
Holly Ferling: Magnificent.
Inga Simpson: – and therefore changed the way we enjoy the game, and therefore brought more women to watch the game. And bringing knowledge of the women’s game always into the commentary box. And, yes, as I imagine you have. It’s just – that’s just being present and speaking and sharing – women players sharing their experience after their life in the game, in the commentary box. So whatever it’s through a male kind of lens or a filter, yes change is slow. But that’s just another place where it has to change, where the person providing the context for the match and the players and their stories, yes, is a woman too.
Holly Ferling: Yes, absolutely. My one final question, going back to the book, you spoke that your love about women’s cricket has been how it’s played differently and just a totally different spirit, and how much you fell in love with Todd’s little sister.
Inga Simpson: Yes.
Holly Ferling: What is it about women’s cricket – what is that spirit? If you can describe it, what is it that separates it from the men’s game?
Inga Simpson: Well you would know better than I. But I think they just don’t seem – watching – they don’t seem to take themselves as seriously. Which is not to say they’re not hard core, competitive, fierce athletes. But, yes, there’s just a broader perspective I think. There’s more gratitude and less entitlement, which is I think a consequence of what you’ve described of people having to have another job and a career, and not have a pathway, and being told at 12 they’re a genius and they’re going to play for Australia. Yes, they’ve had to earn it. And it’s a more diverse team than our men’s team; what I’ve seen. Yes, and played – it’s a team sport and it’s played as a team sport. I mean there are moments when you’re an individual and no one can help you much when you’re batting, or as a bowler when you’ve been hit out of the ground. But it just feels like a team sport, and everyone’s there for everyone else the majority of the time.
Holly Ferling: Yes, absolutely. Well that was very well said. I always find it fascinating because when you’re on the inside sometimes you actually don’t understand what the perceptions are on the outside. Or, yes, just even people’s connections and interest within our sport, it’s something that fascinates me as an athlete but also as someone who works in the media and just likes to think about these things differently. We real –
Inga Simpson: I’m sure there are things that I miss, that I don’t see. But over time, I think you do get an impression, yes.
Holly Ferling: Yes, absolutely. I think we might get to some questions possibly.
Luke Hickey: Fantastic. Thanks so much Inga and Holly for that discussion, and Holly particularly for sharing your expertise as an Australian test cricketer; it’s pretty impressive to have a test cricketer amongst our ranks. And Inga, you talked about the joy and the passion that sports evokes. And I think it translates really beautifully into your writing in the novel as well.
Inga Simpson: Thank you.
Luke Hickey: So thank you very much. Please everyone join me in thanking Inga and Holly for that fascinating discussion.
Luke Hickey: We now have time for a few questions, and we have a microphone. So if you’d like to ask the panel a question tonight, please raise your hand, we’ll bring the microphone to you for the benefit of those joining us online or with the hearing loop. So over to the audience for questions.
Speaker 1: Thanks, Inga. And thank you as well, Holly. That was a really great interview. I really enjoyed every minute of it. Inga, and probably for you too Holly, when I was growing up – and we’re a similar age – our summer was just the constant background sound of the radio commentary. And even when I left home, and if I was doing a long drive, it was really great to have that on in the background. Was it like that for you as well? And I mean if we don’t have – if we lose test cricket, what will summer be like?
Holly Ferling: I know,
Speaker 1: I never liked watching it. I’ve just always really enjoyed listening, because of the stories about the batsmen. And that must have been what – and the bowlers and their lives.
Inga Simpson: Yes. Well and the ebbs and flows of the game. You can walk in and out of the room and still hear that, “Whoa, he’s got him.” And, “What’s happened?” You know. You can sort of stay in touch with it even if you are cooking or whatever else you’re doing in the house. Yes, no I think, yes, it is part of Australian life, for all of the cringing that some of my hard core writer mates have done about it. Yes, I wanted to capture that, just that it’s been a background of our lives, even when we weren’t paying attention.
Holly Ferling: It really is the soundtrack of summer, isn’t it? Like I think, yes, there’s nothing better than – I think of Boxing Day all the time, where you’ve already smashed the food on Christmas Day, and had all the time with the family. And then often for my family we do one family on Christmas Day and then the other side of the family on Boxing Day. And how all of a sudden you’re glued to the screen. But then equally though too, you’re going out to the backyard to try and emulate everything that you’ve just seen on TV. Club cricket as well, like having to – I was from the country, so you’re having to drive hours to games. And being able to listen to the matches right across that summer, I think it does go back to that inspiration piece.
I know it always is said for so long, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” But I also think too, it’s the amount that our young generation now are starting to see of the women, and of the men, I think we’re on the cusp of some incredible athletes that are going to come through that I think have got that monkey off the back; they’ve got this real fearless nature to them. And that all stems back to those experiences that you have, and the memories that you have I think, with cricket. There’s no sport like it where, like you said, you can walk out of a room and you still know what’s happening. The sounds of cricket really keeps you coming back.
Inga Simpson: And before podcasts, you could just listen to it on the radio – ABC Radio – on a long drive or – you could stay in touch with it that way. I was in the chemist the other day and I was watching the replays on my phone while I was waiting for my script to be filled, and the old mate comes in and says, “How are we going?” And I’m like, “Yes, well this is a replay, but overnight this happened.” And he’s like, “Right, yes, phew, wasn’t sure how it was going to go.” And then they call his name and he’s gone. So just those moments. And when I was a kid – my mother doesn’t know this – wait, you’ve read the book, you do know – I used to listen to the Ashes in England on the radio all night and get up for breakfast like – I’m trying to stay awake. So, yes, it is kind of a companion.
Holly Ferling: It is.
Inga Simpson: And all of the commentary after the game too. I listen to all that now; listen to every podcast and every – all the analysis of what went on, which is part of the appeal for me.
Holly Ferling: Absolutely.
Speaker 2: That was a really interesting talk. I’m not a cricket tragic, but I’m interested in your style – nature writing, and writing about sport. And being from the country, a lot of people go down to the Boxing Day and the – not the shaggy – what do they call the green hat? The baggy –
Inga Simpson: Baggy green.
Speaker 2: The baggy green.
Inga Simpson: Some of them are shaped.
Speaker 2: You know it’s the tradition that goes with cricket. And I’m just thinking about – you seem to be quite a socially conscious person with the nature issues that are going on in the world, how have you managed to thread that through the book with social change and the relevance of sport, and how it can be so significant for social change?
Inga Simpson: Yes, well that was one of the challenges of the book, the Australian men’s team has been very white for a long time, so for a start. And no openly gay players in the team the whole time I’ve been watching it. So that was an interest of mine, like, “Why is our team – why is the Australian men’s team so like this?” So, yes, I made some changes to the team as time went on; the team that Todd Harrow joins. But, yes, I didn’t want to stray too far from the reality that we’ve experienced with the men’s team. So, yes, introducing a few different players to the team. And I had to get an environmental thread in there. If you think how vulnerable any game is that is dependent on one species, one subspecies of tree grown in kind of two counties in England, I think that leaves the sport pretty vulnerable should something happen to that tree. So that was a thread – that’s a thread of the book that I have a bit of fun with.
But really most of my focus was on the brother and sister, how different their pathways were to the game, even though they’re equally as talented. Maybe Liv’s even more talented. And how that changed – or that changes in the course of the book. Their kind of career paths change to reflect the changing times. But, yes, good question, how do you – I want to reflect the realities of the game, but also massage it a little bit to shine a spotlight on some of the things you mention, yes.
Speaker 3: Thank you both. Inga, you touched on the American dream and baseball. But of course baseball is not all of the American dream, but it’s a manifestation of it. Where did you get to on the Australian dream? Is it to have an autobiography and an exhibition at the National Library? Or is there more to us than that?
Inga Simpson: Yes, I mean really good question. I didn’t come up with one answer. I started out asking myself, “What is success? Or why do we” – yes, “What is success? And why do ordinary Australians look to sporting people – not literary people – for – yes, to kind of live out our dreams? And why do we follow the ebbs and flows of someone’s career and invest so much in it? Or a team – a kind of a team’s prospects.” So that was more about success. In the end, particularly looking at music and bat making, I kind of swung around more to thinking about what makes a good life? What makes us happy? Because success doesn’t necessarily make us happy. As soon as you achieve your dream, well then what? You aim higher or it’s all downhill from there?
These are things that sportspeople grapple with. Believe it or not, literary writers grapple with as well. Like you keep shifting the bar, “I just want to get – if I could get published I’d be so happy.” And then you get there it’s like, “Huh, it’s all gone a bit quiet now. I might need to write another book.” Yes, I didn’t really come up with an answer to the Australian dream. I think it is hinged too much to success and financial gain, and your asset profile or whatever. If I comment on it in the book, it’s around the bat. And there’s a moment in the book where – well Todd is given this handmade bat and the point comes where he has all these sponsors, where he’s made it, he’s in the Australian team – sorry, that is a bit of a spoiler, but you knew where I was going – yes, maybe he doesn’t value the bat, this handmade bat, as much as he did. And he passes it on.
So maybe that’s as close as I come. The moment when he lost the love of the game, played it for the love of the game, and thought about how much money he could earn or just staying in the test team, that’s kind of – yes, that’s a loss – that’s giving up on something. So perhaps that’s how I see – yes, the Australian dream, and maybe where it’s a little bit pear shaped. Does that make sense?
Speaker 4: On the theme of like is test cricket being in a vulnerable state, I guess across the 20th century it seems that I guess people have always felt that something is being lost from cricket, or the game is dying. So I guess the one that sticks out for me is in 1950s the Beyond A Boundary, the C. L. R. James book where he talks about Bradman and the way that Bradman batted was so different to like W. G. Grace, in the sense that some quote from Bradman’s biography where he says, “Bradman felt that he couldn’t play the way he – like could bat freely, and thinking that W. G Grace would have batted freely every time.” Do you ever – I guess any thoughts on, I guess, why people have always felt that, I guess, something is about to be lost from the game?
Inga Simpson: I think that’s the human condition, you know. And they often say, “The novel is dead,” too. “No one’s going to read anymore. We’ve got e-books. Print books are dead.” Yes, well have you seen the bookstore upstairs? Full of printed books. Yes, so I guess cricket must be the same; it’s always changing. I mean W. – and Beyond A Boundary, by the way – a non-fiction book about cricket – it’s my favourite book ever. It’s a beautifully written book. It really is. Yes, high literature, its kind of analysis of the game. Yes, I mean Grace changed the game, and had been dominated by bowlers, and then batters. And Bradman changed the game. So I guess people are – something’s always coming along to change the game and traditionalists want it to stay the same, “Oh, it’s under threat,” with this franchise idea. That does sound like a threat to playing cricket for your country, to me.
But, yes, T20 cricket was going to be the death of test cricket. And it hasn’t happened. In a way it’s sort of divided people into the real test aficionados. And there’s been growth in the game in that way. You know, Bazball, “Ah, that’s the death of English cricket.” Well, it’s looking pretty alive. Yes, I think that’s the human condition; we don’t really like change, and then we adapt and forget that it was ever any different. Yes, good question.
Holly Ferling: I think that’s the beauty of cricket is that we’ve got these different formats that can target and appeal to different people. And at different points they’re going to evolve and attract new people to the game as well. I think equally too we’re – our attention spans are getting shorter and everything like that, so athletes themselves, I think, are even – like if you take the English cricket team right now as an example, they have identified that they need to help England fall in love back with test cricket, and bring people to the game. So they’ve thought about, “How do we actually want to be known as how we play?” Like sport as entertainment, “How do we make sure that every paying person who’s coming through these gates are getting their money’s worth for that day’s play?”
And I think that’s a really interesting part of sport now. And it has evolved because of technology as well, like the amount of analysis that goes into our games. You spoke about like a streaky player that comes in and a youngster, within three games we know enough about that player that we can pull them apart and find ways to get them out. Or if they’re a bowler, you know what they go to under pressure. Like we’ve got all this at our fingertips now as athletes, and so the game as a whole is just – it almost becomes a matter of who’s going to be smarter in what moment, and who’s got that grit and that determination at the right time to just keep hanging on as long as possible. But it does look slightly different, but it’s still the same as what it was back then. Those brave moments that athletes are having to make decisions, it still exists now, it just looks slightly different.
Inga Simpson: And I think as spectators we have a greater insight. I’m not huge on social media, but I do see the cricket grabs that come up. And there was a fantastic one this morning – or yesterday – the interview with Pat Cummins and, “Were you thinking about your first match when you debuted in South Africa and hit the winning runs?” And so whilst he’s talking they’re running some footage of that in the background of him hugging Mitchell Johnson. And I’m there crying at the breakfast bench, you know, like, “Oh.” But it’s an insight into what must have been going through Cummins’ mind, because he has all those memories now to build on. But, you know, we might forget.
So there’s the role of social media and like that aspect of technology, and the media, to give that context. And it was a brilliant question, because of course – and he made a joke, “Yes, I remembered Lyno in there praying he didn’t have to come out to bat.” But he did this time. But all those other matches that led to that moment where he went out and just thought, “This time I’m doing it.”
Holly Ferling: Yes, that’s pretty cool.
Inga Simpson: Yes.
Luke Hickey: Fantastic. If there’s no other questions from the audience, thank you. And, yes, I can definitely sympathise with your colleagues cringing about sports and bringing that in, I experience a little bit of that here at the Library.
Inga Simpson: Yes.
Luke Hickey: But it has been fantastic to be able to bring that in. Thank you much for sharing your answers to the questions and your insights as well. We are out of time, but I do hope that everyone can join us in the foyer upstairs where Inga has very kindly agreed to sign copies of the book. She also has a nifty little stamp there as a little something extra. And that’s available for purchase from the Library bookshop as well. Don’t forget to take a look at Grit and Gold, Tales from a Sporting Nation on your way out. A little teaser there as well, we’ve been talking about bats and the importance of the handmade bats, we do have a Bradman bat that’s on loan up there, so well worth popping in to have a look at. I don’t think it’s been as carefully crafted as yours though, Inga. And of course don’t forget the women’s test starts tonight at 8 p.m. So please, once again, join me in thanking Inga and Holly for a wonderful evening. Thanks very much.
Join Inga Simpson as she discusses her latest book Willowman with Holly Ferling.
About the book
'Willowman may well be the perfect Australian novel' Readings
'Beguiling and entertaining' Peter Lalor, Weekend Australian
'A sweet strike that goes beyond the boundary' The Age
Reader Cricket Bats, one of the last traditional batmakers back in England, has a contemporary home in the Antipodes, with Allan Reader keeping the family business alive in a small workshop in Melbourne. When Todd Harrow, a gifted young batter, catches Allan's eye, a spark is lit and Allan decides to make a Reader bat for him, selecting the best piece of willow he's harvested in years to do so.
As Harrow charts a meteoric rise to the highest echelons of the sport, leaving his equally talented sister's dreams in his wake, Allan's magical bat takes centre stage as well, awakening something in him. But can Allan's fledgling renaissance - hanging as it does on the magic of that bat - carry on after Harrow is stricken by injury and a strained personal life?
About Inga Simpson
Inga Simpson is an Australian novelist and nature writer. She has PhDs in creative writing and English literature, with her most recent thesis exploring the history of Australian nature writing. Her short stories and essays have been published in Wonderground, Chicago Quarterly Review, Openbook, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review, Clues, Writing Queensland and The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Inga was also the winner of the (final) Eric Rolls nature writing prize for her essay Triangulation.
Inga's latest book, Willowman, has been longlisted for the 2023 Indie Book Awards. The Last Woman in the World (Hachette, 2021) was shortlisted for the Margaret and Colin Roderick literary Award and the Indie Book Award for Fiction. Her first novel, Mr Wigg (Hachette, 2013), was shortlisted for the Indie Award for Debut Fiction. Nest (Hachette, 2014) was longlisted for the Miles Franklin, the Stella Prize, and shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal. And Where the Trees Were (Hachette, 2016) was longlisted for the Miles Franklin, an ABIA Award for Fiction, The Green Carnation Prize, and shortlisted for the Indie Award for Fiction. Understory: a life with trees (Hachette, 2017), Inga's first book-length work of nature writing, was shortlisted for the Adelaide Writers Week prize for nonfiction. The Book of Australian Trees (Lothian, 2021) illustrated by Alicia Rogerson is Inga's first book for children.
Inga's first career was as a professional writer and researcher, including for federal Parliament and the Commonwealth Ombudsman.
She grew up in central west NSW, and has lived in Canberra, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast hinterland. She has now settled on the far south coast of NSW.
About Holly Ferling
Becoming a cricket sensation at only 14 years old after securing a hat-trick in her first 3 balls of her men’s grade debut, Holly has forever strived to better herself on and off the cricket pitch. She debuted for the Australian Women’s Cricket Team at age 17, in all 3 formats - ODI, T20 and Test Cricket - all while completing her schooling in Kingaroy, in country Queensland. Holly now proudly represents the Melbourne Stars, Queensland Fire, Western Suburbs Districts CC. As a devastating right arm fast-med pace bowler, she flourishes under the pressure of big stage matches at all levels of competition.
Off the field, Holly has worked as a journalist for 3 years in a commercial radio newsroom for Macquarie Media, as well as reporting and commentating for Channel 7, FOX Sports and ABC Grandstand. Remarkably, Holly balances these commitments while continuing to study at university. She works alongside a number of household brand names as an ambassador, while continuing to promote the game, and women’s sport.